Can you do business on eBay without a Web browser?
It's possible to link directly to eBay Web services directly from a desktop application on a PC or Mac without ever opening a browser, says Alan Lewis, technical evangelist for the online marketplace. Developers at eBay are among the early adopters of the Apollo runtime for Rich Internet Applications (RIA) that Adobe Systems Inc. is previewing this week.
While Apollo is currently in alpha release, Lewis says it is in good enough shape that eBay developers are prototyping an application that would allow eBay buyers and sellers on PCs and Macs to access eBay directly via Web services with no need to open a browser.
The eBay pilot, code named San Dimas, blurs the line between browser-based RIA and Ajax applications that provide users with the look and feel of a desktop app and an actual desktop app such as Microsoft Excel. The San Dimas prototype is an eBay desktop application that brings searching, alerting and bidding from the eBay Website to the user's desktop via Web services, Lewis explains. While it requires Internet connectivity between the PC or Mac and eBay Web servers, the user does not need to open a browser.
"The definition of RIA is pretty fuzzy," Lewis argues. "But my definition of it is that it provides a richer user experience, including animation, and operates more like a normal desktop application instead of a series of Web pages strung together."
Once Adobe has Apollo ready for primetime and San Dimas is launched, users will have a different way of working with eBay.
"The way to think about this is eBay isn't just eBay the Web site," Lewis explains, noting that eBay was an early provider of Web services to its business partners. "This application can call eBay's Web services directly without having to go through the browser. The application talks directly to eBay's API servers. We can provide an entirely different user experience in this application from what you might get through the Web browser."
A whole range of Web services functionality is being used under the covers.
"The Web service integration is done through the eBay XML API, which is very similar to SOAP," Lewis explained,. We use this instead of our SOAP API because Apollo does not yet have a robust SOAP toolkit. We do publish a WSDL for our SOAP API and a schema for our XML API. We do not currently implement UDDI, but instead have found that less formal directories such as programmableweb.com have served the community better for finding Web services."
eBay developers are also making use of Representational State Transfer (REST).
"Although not a formal standard, we have found significant community interest around REST," Lewis said, "and we publish a REST API interface for some of our Web services. REST style Web services provide a easier way to retrieve certain kinds of data, and they provide enough functionality for certain kinds of applications."
The advantage of this hybrid RIA and desktop application is that serious eBay sellers can do things like pull data from the auction Web site and immediately drag-and-drop it into Excel on the desktop for detailed analysis, Lewis said. Businesses that use eBay to sell large inventories of products will be able to use Apollo-based applications like San Dimas to automate processes for listing their products online without having to manually fill out Web forms. Mash-ups based on this technology might link autos for sale with a program like Google maps, so buyers would know where the car they are looking at is located. If you live in Portland, Maine do you want to buy a car in Portland, Oregon?
Lewis is counting on the 40,000 members of the third-party eBay Developers Program to look at what is being done with Apollo in the San Dimas project and develop new applications for both buyers and sellers. He said these developers are already making innovative use of the eBay Web services with existing technologies, such as Win32. He predicts they will be able to be more creative with Apollo.
The version of Apollo that Adobe is announcing this week provides developers with a free SDK with command line tools. Developers can use the Integrated Development Environment (IDE) of their choice to build Apollo applications, according to Adobe.
Developers experienced at working with Adobe Flash may be the quickest to experiment with the Apollo tools and runtime, Lewis said. But he insisted that it is also accessible to developers working in Java or .NET or scripting languages, including PHP. On the graphic design side, he even sees designers experienced with HTML and cascading style sheets (CSS) being able to work with Apollo.
Asked what's so attractive about Apollo that developers will go for it as opposed to other RIA tools and technologies, Lewis said, "If I had to pick what's most appealing about Apollo to me is its cross-platform OS capability. The ability to run the applications built on Apollo on Windows and the Mac today, and then Adobe has stated that they plan to bring it to Linux in the near term."
For the end users, the advantage is no longer being limited by browser technology.
"They don't need to be joined at the hip with the browser," Lewis said. "That's the whole idea."